9 Ways to Set Better Boundaries at Work

Written by Coursera • Updated on

It's important to develop guidelines that determine how you perform your work and how you expect others to interact with you.

[Feature image] A young woman places a post-it note on a glass wall while making a presentation to her coworkers.

Boundaries are the metaphorical lines you draw in order to establish healthy limits that protect something you care about, such as your time or mental health. Boundaries help guide not only how you behave, but how you expect or allow others to behave with you.  

There are many different types of boundaries, including personal boundaries, relationship boundaries, and work-related boundaries. Setting boundaries at work can have a positive impact on your life, helping improve your relationships with coworkers, reducing your stress levels, and boosting your on-the-job satisfaction. 

With work boundaries, you develop guidelines that determine how you perform your work and how you require others to interact with you. In this article, we’ll go over several strategies for setting boundaries at work, ensuring that you and all your co-workers thrive. 

Types of work boundaries 

At work, you can set two primary types of boundaries to help establish healthy limits. These are: 

  • Physical: Boundaries for personal space, personal touch, as well as your health, such as hunger and energy.  

  • Emotional: Boundaries about your feelings, how you approach others’ feelings, and your mental energy.   

As you think about the boundaries you’d like to establish, make sure to notify your team members and supervisors where possible. Clear communication is essential to ensuring that others understand your needs and respond accordingly. For example, if your team doesn’t know that you can’t (or won’t) answer emails past 7 p.m. then they may expect a response at certain times.  

Learn more: What is Effective Communication?

How to set boundaries at work

The need to create boundaries often arises thanks to a stressful situation. Before you begin thinking about the boundaries you need to set, take time to reflect on your job, your office, your coworkers, your manager, and your day-to-day tasks. Of those areas, what’s creating stress? Identify the problem (or problems) so that you have a clearer understanding about where you need to set boundaries. Once you know where you need to focus your efforts, you can follow the tips below to begin establishing better boundaries at work. 

1. Start with small boundaries.

If you're not used to setting boundaries in the workplace, it helps to start small and build from there. Rather than make sweeping changes, you can begin with a few small steps to protect your time or environment at work. 

  • When you need quiet time, close your door or wear noise-canceling headphones. 

  • Where possible, move weekly meetings to biweekly. 

  • Set clear agendas for meetings and stick to them. 

  • Focus on a project’s objectives when you’re working alongside difficult coworkers.

  • Rather than say what you think people want to hear, offer genuine preferences to work-related or project questions. 

2. Build breaks into your schedule.

It’s easy to sit down at your computer and get caught up in a task. But breaks can help energize you. If you use a digital calendar, build a lunch break into your schedule so your colleagues can’t schedule meetings during that time. If possible, try to add in a brief morning break or an afternoon break with similar calendar restrictions. A hold on your digital calendar lets your team and others know you're unavailable at those times while reminding you to step away from your computer—even if you’re not hungry. 

3. Prioritize your work tasks. 

When your workload is heavy, you may need to prioritize your tasks. When you have too many tasks and not enough time to complete them, start by deciding which tasks are most urgent. Then, if possible, determine which tasks you can delegate to others on your team or seek more time to complete. Finally, set deadlines for all tasks that don't need your immediate attention. Write deadlines down on your digital calendar or on a sticky note or pad of paper so you’re keeping track of what’s due and when.  

4. Use digital tools to help. 

A good deal of office work relies on digital tools to help foster productivity. Think about ways you can use the tools your company already offers to establish boundaries. For example, if you’re working on an important task and don’t wish to be disturbed, put up an away message on Slack and turn off notifications. There are also a number of apps that help you minimize distractions, such as Freedom or KeepMeOut, that may help you block out your time while you work.  

5. Delay your response time.

Thanks to email and other virtual tools, you may feel pressure to be available or respond to communication quickly during work hours. But, unless a message is extremely urgent, that demand may interrupt the structure you’re attempting to create—and can distract you from more important tasks. Where possible, delay how quickly you respond to emails and other requests. Dedicate time throughout the day to checking your email, but avoid responding outside of those blocks.  

6. Only say "yes" when you mean it.

Saying “no” is important to do when you’re setting boundaries because you may be asked to participate in tasks outside of your day-to-day responsibilities, such as attending an extra meeting, taking on a last-minute project, or heading a new committee. 

When you feel pressure to say “yes,” but would rather say, “no,” consider these questions:

  • Are you the only person who can complete the task?

  • Is there a way to re-prioritize your task list to take on this work?

  • What will taking on this work cost you? 

When you do say, “no,” start on a positive note. For example: "I really appreciate your confidence in my ability to handle the Johnson account, but I've got a lot on my plate and I’m not sure I’d be able to give it the attention it needs. I'm wondering if this is something that Martin could take on?" Or try, "I would really be interested in handling the Johnson account, but I'm wondering if I could pass the Holt Industries file on to Jim to make time for it?"

7. Communicate your boundaries.

Make sure your coworkers and manager know about your boundaries, whether that’s not responding to emails over the weekend or leaving work early to pick up your child from school. That will make it easier to set and keep your boundaries because you’ve proactively communicated what you need and what you’re doing to protect it. 

8. Leave work at work.

In order to maintain a healthy work-life balance, you need to set boundaries when you're not at work, especially when you’re working remotely. At night or on the weekend, try to refrain from taking work calls or answering emails. Let calls go to voicemail, and encourage people to call back only in case of an emergency, though you may have to clarify with your manager or coworkers what that constitutes. Put text and email notifications on silent when you're not at work.  

Take time off when it's offered—and when you need it. A long weekend here and there or a week away with loved ones can help you recharge. 

Read more: Work-Life Balance - What It Is and How to Achieve It

9. Be flexible.

Setting boundaries with your coworkers or manager is an essential part of self-care. But it’s important to be realistic. While boundaries are important, don't let them dictate your life. Recognize that people are human, and sometimes they may cross the boundaries you’ve established. It’s important to be realistic—and flexible—though if someone takes advantage of your graciousness too often you may need to reestablish your boundaries with them. 

Explore further 

Need more ideas for better work-life balance? Check out this collection of valuable classes available on Coursera, which include courses on time management and mindfulness. Or enroll in Yale University’s free course on happiness, The Science of Well Being, which is designed to help you build more productive habits.  

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